In the first chapter of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, published last year, art critic Ben Davis articulates the fraught distinction between artists and members of the so-called creative class. The distinction in creative labor, put simply, is that artists have autonomous control over the direction of their creative output, whereas members of the “creative industries” produce products on spec. While both trade the products of their labor for capital, the latter, professionalized class dwarfs the former in economic clout, and so is dramatically more lucrative and stable an avocation.
Though this distinction is an obvious one, various entities have a significant interest in distorting and blurring the line between those outcomes. Artsy high school kids don’t take on preposterous amounts of debt to design brochures for Pfizer. The outlook is bleak, and career purgatory persists even at elite levels — just ask the Columbia MFAs collating GIFs for BuzzFeed.
But economics rarely motivate people to go into the arts, and that’s fine — what isn’t fine are smoke-and-mirror attempts at falsely touting the fiscal health of “the arts” under the guise of rigorous economic research. For example: a recent, 261-page report released last month on the “creative economy” of the Los Angeles region. Commissioned by the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles with sponsorship from a host of major corporations engaged in the industries studied (e.g. Mattel, Nike), the report was carried out by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) — a lobbying organization funded by LA businesses. (“The mission of the LAEDC is to attract, retain and grow businesses and jobs for the regions of L.A. County.”)
The result is a massive tome that will surely be passed around Los Angeles City Hall and in Sacramento, where the report’s self-stated goal of being “a critical first step toward enabling greater statewide coordination of resources and services to support those [creative] industries” will perhaps grease along Harvey Weinstein’s bitter struggle for more film-production tax breaks.
Part of what makes doing a rigorous economic census of the arts difficult is that the number of people who work autonomously as artists is very small, and there are no completely reliable definitions for such practices within the United States tax or census system. What’s more, the “creative economy” often has very little to do with what being an artist entails — the idea of producing creative work on spec is anathema to many, who might prefer to pursue unrelated labor on the job market while working on their art on the side. But selling out, or buying in, to the creative economy can have its benefits — as this report makes amply clear, with average salaries reaching into the six figures for many creative fields.
Below are some of the more interesting findings in the report. If you’re a congressman in Southern California interested in figuring out which creative industries have enough juice to finance your next campaign, the report is fully accessible online.